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The Perils Of Rube-Goldbergian Puzzle Design

Ever since I was able to hold a mouse, I’ve been a fan of adventure games. I have fond memories of clicking confusedly through Sam & Max: Hit the Road with my brother, back in the early 90s, laughing at jokes we didn’t really understand. Fast-forward to the turn of the century and the genre was slipping from the spotlight, usurped by more action-focused offerings suited to the booming console market. I became one of those console kids, and so I missed out on a number of seminal titles from the Lucasarts and Sierra heyday.

Fortunately, thanks to a little studio called Telltale, adventure games have seen a massive resurgence of late. Many classic titles are getting a new lease on life, remastered for the modern era - no messing with DOSBox required. Needless to say, I’m loving the chance to fill the gaps in my experience.


My latest foray into the adventures of yore involved a skeleton named Manny, a demonic mechanic with a drinking problem, and a world in which death is delivered with a botanical bullet. Grim Fandango, headed up by Tim Schafer of Double Fine fame, might have been one of the last nails in the coffin of Lucasarts-era adventure games, but if the genre had to slumber, at least it went out in style.

The tale Grim Fandango tells is a memorable one, fun and funny in equal measure. Unfortunately, while the story survives the 18-years since its inception no worse for wear, the puzzles that constitute Grim’s gameplay have not held up quite so well.

‘Adventure-game logic’ has long been one of the biggest complaints of the genre. To this day, the trope still crops up in franchises like Professor Layton and Silent Hill, but it was far more prevalent in the pre-2000s. Essentially, the issue arises when the solution to a problem makes sense only in retrospect, exhibiting leaps of logic that defy the rules of reality both in the game and out. Deducing the answer from the clues thus becomes a case of blind experimentation rather than logical planning.

[Spoilers for Grim Fandango follow]

Grim Fandango takes a lot of cues from this school of puzzle design. For example, one puzzle towards the end of the game requires you to neutralise a booby trap situated in the middle of a room carpeted in teetering dominoes, each poised to trip the trap at the slightest disturbance.


Eschewing any semblance of rationality, the solution involves brewing a gelatinous beverage and convincing your pal Glottis to drink too much of it too fast so that he throws it back up over the dominoes, drowning them in jelly. No explanation is provided as to why the dominoes didn’t fall from the force of the regurgitation.

From there, you must freeze the jelly with liquid nitrogen to allow Manny to enter the room and disarm the bomb. Though in hindsight the chain of events is plausible enough, intuiting the solution from the outset is practically impossible. The causal links between the disparate steps are paper-thin, visible only after copious trial and error.


In bashing my head against these obstinate puzzles, I was reminded of another type of arcane contraption: Rube Goldberg Machines. For those unfamiliar with the term, Rube Goldberg Machines are devices consisting of multiple clockwork-esque systems that cascade through a series of chain reactions, much in the same way the aforementioned dominoes topple one-by-one towards a distant end.


The systems within the machines are often bespoke and primarily mechanical, utilising the power of gravity, buoyancy, and momentum to do such things as flick marbles down wooden gutters, inflate balloons, and send slinkys slinking down stairs.

The board game Mousetrap is a prime example of a Rube Goldberg Machine, with its pulleys, see-saws, and catapults executing in sequence to drop a cage over the unlucky mouse caught below. It is the way these contraptions juxtapose the chaos of their construction with the order in their execution that makes them so compelling to watch, whether their ultimate goal is simply preparing breakfast, or changing the TV channel.


Rube Goldberg Machines are illogical by design, as part of their appeal lies in not knowing what’s coming next. A good puzzle, however, should be decipherable through reasoned analysis, the solution attainable through the application of consistent rules and systems established at the outset. Identifying the connections between clues is a crucial component of a satisfying puzzle; take that away and you’re left with little more than an exercise in persistence, exhausting every option available until something just works.

Brute force solutions rarely feel rewarding, tainting even the most bombastic of Rube-Goldbergian payoffs with the disappointment of an unearned victory. Stumbling upon a stochastic solution doesn’t make you feel smart, and if solving a puzzle doesn’t give you that Eureka! moment, it’s doing something seriously wrong.


Take another late-game conundrum Grim Fandango throws at you: Glottis is perched precariously on the brink of death, his only hope for survival the creation of a vehicle fast enough to reinvigorate his speed-demon soul. This vehicle will require a special fuel and it’s up to you to get it. How you do that is up to you to figure out. Searching the environment reveals barrels of oil that seem like they might be helpful, and they are, but not in a way that pays much heed to common sense.


That’s true of the entire puzzle, though; to solve it, you must find a mug filled with packing foam residue, hang that mug on a mug rack (which has to be one of the most counter-intuitive steps I’ve ever encountered in a game), find a towel, soak it in oil, stick it in a toaster (another nonsense move), and then watch as the towel catches fire, launches out of the toaster, and ignites the nearby mug which subsequently careens around the room like a rocket.

Having succeeded in that little pyrotechnic display, the mechanics tending to Glottis realise that the packing foam can be used as fuel, and the story proceeds. I’d put two and two together well before figuring that puzzle out, yet I still had to blindly bumble my way through it to progress. Needless to say, I did not feel smart nor satisfied for getting through it.


In contrast, there’s a puzzle early on in the game that balances challenge and logical design quite elegantly. Your objective is to disrupt the mail delivery system in the Department of Death, for reasons that don’t need to be spoiled. To do this, it is necessary to use the aforementioned packing foam, but this time it makes a lot more sense.

Prior to this puzzle, you witness the effects of combining the two substances that make up the foam in a cutscene, so the knowledge is fresh in your mind. A locked door stands between you and the guts of the mail system, but there’s a mail chute in Manny’s office that would serve as a viable vector for injecting the two halves of the foam equation into the central system. From there, it only takes a few more logical steps to complete the solution. The process is not entirely free of trial and error, but at least each link in the chain is clear and coherent.


I had a good time with Grim Fandango. Its story and its humour were enough to keep me going, even when the Rube-Goldbergian philosophy of puzzle design was at its most heinous. Thankfully, the availability of walkthroughs and hint guides these days lessens the frustration of illogical game logic and makes it possible to enjoy games that would otherwise have us slamming our heads into brick walls for hours on end.


That said, seeing a game through to completion without outside assistance is typically far more preferable. So, on that note, I’d like to hear what your favourite and least-favourite puzzles in games are. What do you want out of a good puzzle, and what irks you so much that you put a game down, never to return again? Let me know in the comments!

Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% terrible at maths. You can read more of his articles here, friend him on Steam here or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar

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